Decades ago, the science of scents was so convincing that some retailers actually installed machines that would automatically “spray” the artificially created aromas that could induce those same mouthwatering and sales responses—until consumer advocates disclosed the practice. Yet to this day, these man-made food scents are still used by nonfood retailers to put shoppers in a better
mood for buying.
Samsung’s flagship store in New York City, for
example, pumps the aroma of honeydew melons into
the store. Disney places scent-emitting machines
strategically throughout its theme parks to disperse
scents of cotton candy, popcorn and caramel apples.
However, food retailers had to go back to relying on
their own bakers and pizza makers to create those
delightful sensory experiences.
New research—The Smell of Healthy Choices:
Cross-Modal Sensory Compensation Effects of
Ambient Scent on Food Purchases—from professors
at the University of South Florida and Louisiana State
University may offer a new approach to using food
aromas. Their research included field studies at a
supermarket and a middle school cafeteria, where
they discovered what possibly could be one of the
most effective ways to get shoppers to make healthier
If your bakery department were to make some
delicious, fat-laden aromatic cookies, they would
fly off the shelves, right? Not necessarily. Perhaps
it’s because people today—or at least the study’s
more than 900 middle school students, who are
economically underprivileged and live in a working-class neighborhood, as well as the customers who
shopped on a Saturday in an average national
grocery store—are more aware of what is healthy
than people were, say, 20 years ago. So just the
opposite occurred in the tests.
The researchers in these two field tests, as well
as in four additional lab-based studies, found that
aromas that lasted two minutes or more actually had
the opposite effect. Aromas that lasted less than 30
seconds had the desired effect.
In the school cafeteria, the scents of pizza and apples
were tested. On the day the pizza scent was tested, a
total of 2,931 food and beverage items were sold, 628
items ( 21.43%) of which were unhealthy. The day that
the apple scent was used, 2,819 items were sold, out
of which 1,042 ( 36.96%) were unhealthy. As all good
researchers do, they also had a control day during
which no scent was sprayed; on that day, 36.54% of the
items bought fell into the unhealthy category.
In the supermarket, the scents of cookies and
strawberry scents were used, and the findings were
similar. The more than two-minute indulgent cookie
scent resulted in shoppers buying healthier foods,
and the more than two-minute nonindulgent
strawberry scent resulted in a greater share of
unhealthy food purchases.
So for those supermarkets that have taken a position
of helping their customers choose better-for-you
foods, it may be time to do a survey of the aromas in
your stores, and see just how long your customers are
exposed to them.
An Upgrade to
the Retail Science
of Food Aromas
It’s been a pretty standard way of merchandising food:
strategically placing delicious aromas to increase shoppers’
desire to try and buy. By Phil Lempert
Phil Lempert, also known as
the Supermarket Guru, is a
leading food marketing and
consumer trends analyst for
the grocery and retail sectors.
The latest news, analysis and trends from an industry expert